“And what time do you call this, young man?” said Vincent. He was wearing a Cure “Faith” T-shirt over a long-sleeved grey top, and was working on a PowerPoint presentation.
“I’d a late night,” answered Senán. He took his rucksack off and shook it to remove the raindrops. As he took his coat off, Vincent told him Scary Mary was looking for him.
“She’s on the warpath,” he added.
“Oh, Christ. The one morning I’m in late I’m fuckin’ caught. My ass is grass.”
Vincent sniggered. “She had that look in her eye. When she saw you weren’t here, the mask of civility briefly fell away. And I was scared.”
“I’d even say there was something . . . pre-menstrual about the particular species of nasty on display this morning. A frisson. She looks like she wants to kick babies with those fine legs of hers.”
Senán sat down and booted up his workstation. With his head in his hands he accused Vincent of enjoying tormenting him.
“Well, to be frank, yes. I am twisting the knife a bit. Anything to lift the gloom. This module on teenage suicide isn’t exactly fun, you know? There’s a song by The Creatures on Anima Animus — “Exterminating Angel”. It goes: ‘Plumes of dirt caress a urine-coloured sun / Swarms of angels come to kill your sons / And there’s nothing but black holes / Where the stars should’ve been / Nothing but black holes / Where the stars would be watching’.”
Senán turned around and fixed Vincent with a look that was a mixture of puzzlement and annoyance.
“What’s the ‘plumes of dirt’ and urine got to do with the price of cabbage?”
Vincent sniggered again. “It’s about PMT. Good old Siouxsie Sioux. I think she’s the only lyricist that would have the balls — metaphorically speaking — to pen a song about the curse. Although, if you have a good root around the corpus of Danielle Dax you’d probably find references to menstruation. And now that I think of it, Miranda Sex Garden may have had a broadside on the topic. Oh, shit, of course, Patti Smith. Perhaps. But we’re leaving the strictly gothic genre with her—”
“What the fuck are you on about, Vincent? You’ve lost me! What’s all this got to do with Scary Mary? You, in your role as older man and surrogate big brother — until I find someone better — are supposed to be helping me. Not giving me the willies and doing my head in with talk of urine-coloured dust and shit.”
“It’s ‘Plumes of dust caress a urine-coloured sun’.”
Vincent looked disappointed that Senán hadn’t appreciated his brief lecture on menstruation-related lyrics in gothic rock. He flicked his spiky fringe with his hand and said, “OK, philistine. I’ll spell it out for you. Scary Mary has the look of a queen bitch” — he raised his eyebrows for effect — “this morning and is going to have your guts for garters.”
“Thanks, man. Fuckin’ A.”
“This is slippage, Senán — drift. It starts with rolling in hung-over on a wet Wednesday morning and it spirals downwards. I’ve seen it. With friends of mine when I was doing my own PhD. And with some of my former students. We’ve to nip this in the bud.”
“I wasn’t hung-over,” said Senán. “I just slept in.”
“But you were out last night. You did have drink.”
Vincent had been right about Scary Mary — there was an extra tinge of terseness to her questioning and a discernible narrowing around her eyes that warned of heightened levels of astringent bitchiness. Whether this was down to the curse, as Vincent had called it, or she had just got up on the wrong side of the bed, Senán couldn’t, and didn’t want to, hazard a guess. All he knew was that he had to stay calm in the face of her accusations, because that morning it was not unlikely that Scary Mary would unleash something more fearful than The Stare if he decided to give her back some of her own attitude.
“I went out for a few pints after work. Yeah.”
Scary Mary shifted in her chair with such vim and speed that it looked like she had given a little jump, and recrossed her legs.
“See! Work!” she snapped. “I saw this coming. I told you about the risks of starting to work in that shop. And I have been proved right. No sooner have you started working there than slippage sets in.”
Senán kept his voice light and calm. “Ah, now, Máire,” he said. “I’ve been working in Francie’s for nearly five weeks and I’ve been in bright and early every morning. Today was just a lapse.”
“A lapse. A blip. I just slept in. See, we were in a shebeen last night, me and some of the crowd from the shop.”
“A shebeen. Jesus fucking Christ. Where?”
“I don’t know if I should say. These—”
“Somewhere in Kileely. That’s all I’ll say.”
“Fuck me! Our gentle boy from Tipperary in a shebeen in Kileely. You’ll be sniffing glue and joyriding next!”
Gentle bemusement had slipped into Scary Mary’s tone. What passed for a smile stretched her lips, and she looked long at Senán with an almost doting version of The Stare.
“It was good,” he said, to break the silence. “I had a long conversation about the problems in the area with a man who owns maybe a dozen rental properties. All good stuff to complement the more official material I’m reading. You know, working in the shop and becoming friendly with a few people down there I feel like I’m coming at my project with more . . . authenticity. After seeing people’s lives first-hand I feel like I’m more entitled to be grinding data and coming up with hypotheses about the bricks and mortar they live in.”
“Well, well,” said Scary Mary. “It looks like you’re going native. It may not be a bad thing if it imbues your work with passion. Just don’t get all touchy-feely. Remember: there are no sides in sociological research. We want hard, objective thinking based on the rigorous analysis of correctly gathered data. I gave you this gig because of your economics and finance background. I could have chosen any of a dozen long-haired, cardigan-wearing, bleeding-heart sociology grads, so I don’t want to end up having one by the back door. Keep yourself grounded, OK?”
“And no more struggling in here at eleven o’clock, OK?”
“Right. Let’s get down to business. Let’s see what you made of that Sherry FitzGerald data.”
“You made it out alive, I see,” said Vincent, without taking his eyes from his monitor.
Senán collapsed on to his swivel chair with a sigh. “It wasn’t too bad, I suppose. Could’ve been worse.”
“Could’ve been worse,” repeated Vincent. “Hmmm.” He clicked his mouse and raised his arm in celebration, fist clenched like a football striker who had just scored a goal.
“Saved! Almost finished this shit. Want to come out with me for a well-deserved coffee and a fag?”
“So. How deep did Scary Mary sink her fangs in?”
They were standing in Vincent’s usual spot, what he called his “haunt” — a little-used side-entrance to the Foundation, hidden behind substantial shrubbery, chosen to avoid any chance encounters with his students.
“I would say I received no more than a flesh wound,” said Senán. His spirits were higher, now that he was standing outside in the fresh air with a cup of coffee in his hand.
“You know,” his friend said, lighting up a cigarette and inhaling deeply, “you’re getting off pretty lightly with Scary Mary so far. Either that or your upper lip is impressively stiff.”
Senán grinned impishly. “That’s not the only part of me that’s impressively stiff!”
“A, I’m ignoring that; and B, I’m incredulous I set such a gaping trap for myself. Anyway. What I’m trying to say is that over the years I’ve seen Scary Mary do nothing but pull the heads off her postgrads. There’s no one who’s lasted as long as you without getting a grade A bollocking and scurrying out of her lair in tears. Male or female, young or old — I’ve seen it happen to everyone. Ask Paud.”
“And your point is?”
“‘Be still be calm be quiet now my precious boy / Don’t struggle like that or I will only love you more’.”
Vincent took a drag on his cigarette and blew the smoke slowly downwards. His expression was of one who had posed a clever riddle and was expectantly awaiting the solution. Senán looked at him and shook his head.
“I haven’t a clue what you’re on about. Although I am glad we’ve moved away from the urine and dust-coated whatever-it-was.”
“The Cure. ‘Lullaby’. Disintegration. Their opus magnum. Do not tell me you are unfamiliar with the greatest record of the 1980s?”
Senán made a moue of boredom, then let his jaw hang dramatically downwards and raised his eyes to heaven.
“Philistine,” chided Vincent. “I don’t know why I bother. Anyway. What I was getting at, besides trying to introduce a bit of culture into your life, was that Scary Mary seems to be going very easy on you.”
“Cos she’s just given me a shitload of number-crunching to do. And she wants it yesterday.”
“But she hasn’t made you cry or pulled your head off.”
“Or called you a useless worm or anything?”
“I think she likes you. I think she’s a soft spot for you. I think you’re her favourite.”
Vincent delivered this last phrase in the voice of a Hollywood-style bookish child.
“Scaywy Maywy’s favwit,” he said.
“I don’t know why I come down here to your little haunt. All I get is passive smoke, lessons on The Cure and ridicule and abuse.”
“I think you come down here precisely for the passive smoke. I’d say at this stage you’re a smoker. You just don’t know it yet. I can see you sneakily whiffing up the stray smoke from my fag. I see those little curls of smoke going up your nostrils. Face it: you’re an addict.”
There was silence between the pair for a minute. They watched cars prowl the car park in search of free spaces, and knots of students leave the Foundation for buildings on the north or west side of campus.
“Would you do her?” said Vincent, a little smirk creasing his chubby cheeks. “Would you do Scary Mary?”
“Jesus Christ. You’re in some queer mood today. Are you sure it isn’t yourself that has the PMT?”
Vincent, smirk still firmly in place, wasn’t letting up.
“Would you do her? Go on — you can tell Uncle Vincent.”
“No, I wouldn’t do her, for your information. She’s my supervisor. For all sorts of reasons, ranging from the ethical to the purely practical, I wouldn’t even consider doing her, as you put it.”
“I’d do her.”
“Bully for you: there’s nothing to stop you doing her. There’s no student–supervisor relationship. No gross moral turpitude.”
“But you fancy her?”
“Oh fuck, Vincent. What is this? Torment Senán time?”
“No. I’m just looking for a reason why you’re her favourite. Maybe she gets vibes off you.”
“Vibes?” said Senán in a tone of near disgust.
“Yeah. You fancy her. She picks up the vibes. She’s, you know, flattered. A young handsome buck like yourself. Hence — you’re her favourite.”
“I’m not her favourite. I don’t give off vibes. She’s not bad to look at, but I don’t fancy her. And I certainly wouldn’t do her. Now, there it is, all spelled out for you: my position on Scary Mary.”
Vincent frowned. “But why does she like you so much? I’m trying to get to the bottom of this little puzzle.”
“God, Vincent. Have you nothing better to think about? Like all those little emos cutting themselves or whatever?”
“Not while I’m out here having a coffee and a fag. It’s called a break.”
Senán took a long last drink of his coffee and crumpled the paper cup.
“I’ll put you out of your misery, so,” he said. “Scary Mary told me today that she picked me for this project because of my economics and finance background, and she basically said that she didn’t have much time for the usual long-haired, hippy type of sociology graduate that moves on to being a postgraduate. She kind of warned me not to go native, you know, with working in the shop and all. She didn’t want me turning into a ‘bleeding heart’. Her words.”
“Oh,” sung Vincent. “You’re exotic to her. A hard-data man crossing over into the cuddly world of sociology. Hmm. But she also relates to you because you’ve gotten down and dirty with the natives on the reservation, filling their shelves with Pot Noodles and Linden Village, and going to their shebeens. She sees herself in you. A young, idealistic Scary Mary. She looks at you with a potent mix of narcissism, nostalgia, regret, admiration — onanism maybe. She’s gonna wind up trying to jump your bones, young man. You’re irresistible to her. I’m opening a book. People will bet good money on the chances of her getting off with you at the Christmas party. Stranger things have happened.”
“You know what, Vincent? Fuck you,” Senán said, smiling. “This is all just a middle-aged man projecting his Scary Mary fantasies on to a younger, fitter model.”
“Touché,” said Vincent. He stubbed his cigarette out on the soggy soil of the shrub bed, and scrunched up his cup. “C’mon — back up to the world of dreams,” he said, and made for the door.